Grinnell is a secular institution, but does that mean students have to leave their religion at the classroom door?
Olivia Queathem ’17 is part of an unusual group Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in religious studies that may help answer that question. Queathem and five other student researchers are conducting focus groups this spring to gather data for the Grinnell Religious Diversity Project.
The grant-funded study is exploring issues of religion, religious culture, and religious diversity on campus. The project focuses, in part, on whether classrooms in an intentionally secular environment are affected by, or in some cases impinge upon, students’ closely held religious beliefs and experiences.
“There can be some pretty strong emotional attachments to what’s being talked about,” Queathem says, “and it’s a really difficult balance to find a classroom climate that feels open so that people can say what they’re feeling and ask honest questions.
“The professors are always looking for better ways to make sure that students feel safe in the classroom expressing their views through respectful dialogue,” Queathem adds.
Project directors Tim Dobe, associate professor of religious studies, and Caleb Elfenbein, assistant professor of religious studies and history, are helping students establish the parameters for the research. But it’s the students who are driving the process.
A key goal for the MAP participants, says Alexandra Odom ’16, is to “create a project that shows people what the realities of religion are on campus.” One of their first tasks was to formulate questions that would foster open and honest conversations in their respective focus groups.
“People are used to not talking about religion and keeping it part of their private lives,” says Odom. “We have to be very intentional about how we create a space where people feel comfortable talking about their religious beliefs and engaging with people who may or may not have similar beliefs.”
Odom says the first round of focus groups indicate that students who feel personally shaped by their religion are willing to share and wish more people on campus would ask questions about their faith.
Opportunity to Speak
“It seems like people have been waiting for this opportunity to speak,” Odom says. “Even people who don’t align themselves with a religion are willing to talk, especially if they grew up in a setting where religion was always present, even if they weren’t directly involved.”
Promoting honest dialogue will not only help define the range and depth of religious experience on campus, Odom says. It will ultimately help researchers understand religious diversity in the context of core Grinnell values like self-governance.
“Grinnell prides itself on students looking out for each other,” Odom says. “We can’t promote the health and wellness of the community if we have no idea what that community is. To identify religious populations that are present is the first step to serving those populations in a way that’s meaningful for them so they can have a great experience here, too.”
Identifying Campus Culture
Since February, the MAP students have been journaling personal impressions of their research experience on a blog. For Jaya Vallis ’16, having a place for personal introspection is helpful.
“We talked a lot about objectivity, self-reflexivity, and trying to remove our own biases when we were designing questions and talking to our interviewees,” Vallis says. “I recognized almost immediately even in just describing this project to people that I had to identify and separate out my own personality.”
Vallis says the research group also discussed techniques for talking to interviewees in order to identify what people think campus culture actually is and how religious diversity plays a part in it.
“‘Campus culture is a very vague term,” Vallis says. “Once we get an idea of what it is, we’ll be better able to identify ways to maybe implement policy changes or the creation of new spaces on campus.”
By semester’s end, the MAP students will produce a group paper that will help inform future phases of the three-year study. Among the skills gained in designing and implementing the focus group process is Institutional Review Board training necessary for ethical research involving human subjects.
“Religion touches a lot of aspects of our society, and it’s really interesting to see how it overlaps with other spheres of influence in terms of how people live their daily lives,” Queathem says.
“I know that I want to do something that helps people in a concrete way, whether that ends up being activism or nonprofit work,” Queathem says. “This is valuable experience in terms of giving me an actual research opportunity that I haven’t had before so I’ll get to see if I like it or not.”
Olivia Queathem ’17 is a religious studies major from Grinnell. Alexandra Odom ’16 is a history major from Baltimore. Jaya Vallis ’16 is a psychology and religious studies double major from Washington, D.C.